A quick trip down the centuries of Christian devotion to Mary is like walking through an art gallery hung with portraits of the same person painted by different artists. Each painter sees his subject differently, but each portrait is a true likeness, capturing different facets of the mystery of that person.
And so it is with Mary. Her image in Christian consciousness is constantly changing. She is always recognisably the Mother of the Lord, but one age will emphasise one facet of her personality or role in salvation, and at another time some other aspect receives -prominence.
Already in the Gospels this variation can be seen. In Mark’s Gospel (the earliest) she is barely mentioned, and in the one brief incident where she makes a significant appearance, the reader is left with an ambivalent impression of her (Mk 3.20-21, 31- 34). In Matthew’s Gospel she remains a shadowy figure – Joseph is much more prominent in the story of Jesus’ infancy – but she does have an important role as the mother of the Saviour. Luke gives the most detailed portrait of Mary, presenting her both as disciple and mother – one who wholeheartedly accepts the word of God and thus becomes the mother of the Lord. John invests her with strong symbolic significance in his Gospel, presenting her as not only the mother of Jesus, but also the mother of all disciples (Calvary), ever on the watch for their welfare (Cana).
But the Gospels were only the beginning. In the early centuries of the Church appreciation of Mary continued to grow. In the second century Justin the Martyr was hailing Mary as the “new Eve”, a theme taken up a few years later and greatly developed by St Irenaeus. Taking their cue from the letter of St Paul to the Romans, these early Fathers saw that if Christ was the new Adam, repairing the damage caused by the sin of the first Adam, Mary was the new Eve, who by her obedience cancelled out the disobedience of the first Eve. Just as Eve was the mother of all in their human nature, Mary was the mother of all in their redeemed nature. Eve brought death to the world; Mary brought life. And so on. This is a theme that has resonated down through the ages and is beautifully captured in one of the verses of the ancient hymn Aye Maris Stella: “AVE to thee crying Gabriel went before us; Peace do thou restore us, EVA’s knot untying.”
And then in the age of the Desert Fathers, once the Peace of Constantine had been established and the threat of martyrdom had receded, the consciousness of Christians took an ascetic turn. Heaven was no longer assured through the shedding of one’s blood for Christ, but instead was to be won through a disciplined and ascetic life. The first forms of monasticism began to appear. Hardy individuals took to the desert and lived lives of heroic hardship that leave us gasping today.
In this changed view of the Christian life of Mary appears in a new light. In an important document of that time, The Proverbs of the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325), we find a most extraordinary picture of Mary that projects onto her all the ideals of what at that time a nun was thought to be. “Mary never saw the face of a strange man, that was why she was confused when she heard the voice of the angel Gabriel. She did not eat to feed her body, but she ate because of the necessity of her nature. She withdrew all by herself into her house, being served by her own mother. She sat always with her face turned towards the East, because she prayed continually. Her brothers wanted to see her and speak to her. And she did not receive them. She slept only according to the need of sleep. When she put on a garment she used to shut her eyes. She did not know many things of this life, because she remained far from the company of women. If therefore, a girl wants to be called a virgin, she should resemble Mary.”
We may smile at this portrait and dismiss it as the product of a pious eccentric whose fevered imagination and unbounded admiration of Mary led him to ignore the clear testimony of the Gospels which certainly do not present her as a pious recluse. But in fact the Proverbs of Nicea was an authoritative document and the portrait it gives was by no means a fanciful exception to the common view of Mary. Christians of that time did tend to think of her in those terms.
St Athanasius (A.D. 296-373), a giant among the Fathers and a vigorous defender of the divinity of Christ against the Arian heresy, also records a similar portrait of Mary, though he allows a minor imperfection or two (she is occasionally tempted by “bad” thoughts!) to creep in, probably so as to add to the realism of the picture.
In the Middle Ages – the age of chivalry – it should not surprise us that Mary took on features associated with those courtly times. She became known as “Our Lady”, the symbol of chaste love. The code of chivalry enjoined upon the knights of those days strict standards of conduct, emphasising, the “manly virtues” of courage, honour and courtesy, particularly towards women. Whether a knight was clashing in combat or jousting in jest, he fought to win the favour of a lady. And the most perfect, the fairest lady of all was undoubtedly Mary, the virgin Queen of heaven and earth. Minstrels sang of her beauty, poets extolled her virtues, and the great St Bernard waxed most lyrically of all. “Our Queen”, he exclaims, “has gone before us; she has been so gloriously received in ‘heaven that we, ‘her pages, can follow with confidence in the footsteps of our Lady.”
The Renaissance in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw a great florescence of the visual and literary arts, when the treasures of classical antiquity were rediscovered and reappropriated by the new age. This brought about an exaltation of nature and the human condition. The achievements of the human spirit seemed boundless and whatever was human was glorified. Religion too was, caught up in this glorification of the human spirit and it is no wonder that Mary took on another guise.
She now appears as the tender mother caring for her child, as depicted in so many wonderful paintings of the Madonna and Child by such artists as Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Raphael.
Indeed the theme of Mary the loving mother dominates Renaissance painting to such an extent that there is scarcely an artist who does not have such a painting to his credit. But it is not only Mary, the mother of Jesus, who is so warmly portrayed. She is also seen as the mother of us all. We are her spiritual children and she lavishes on us the same loving care and devotion she showed towards Jesus.
And then in later times when the Church was beleaguered by the forces of rationalism and materialism, she turned to the image of Christ the King to inspire her in her battles against evil. Mary naturally appeared in relation to these concerns- sometimes as a valiant Queen standing at the right hand of her Son, and at other times as the mother of mercy in contrast to the Christ of justice. He was stern and strictly just in his judgements on the world, but we poor sinners still had hope by turning to Mary who could smuggle us into heaven, hidden in the folds of her all-embracing mantle. This is unsound theology – but it had great appeal in the nineteenth century.
This is also the age of the great apparitions of Lourdes and Fatima, where although Mary appears as a beautiful young woman, her message is one of warning and imminent gloom, unless we repent of our sins, do penance, and unite against the forces of evil. Mary thus appears in a way that appeals to the consciousness of a Church that is on the defensive, assailed by powerful forces that threaten her very existence, and seeking to protect and preserve what she already possesses.
And in this our own century the Church has held up Mary and the Holy Family of Nazareth as the model of family life to counteract the ravages ‘of’ divorce and lax morals so inimical to the strength of the Christian family.
Now in more recent times she has been hailed by Pope Paul VI in Marialis Cultus) as the perfect disciple and man of faith, and by the North American Bishops (in Behold your Mother) as the model of the liberated woman.
And so it should not be surprising for us if we should find that today we are beginning to see Mary in a new light and to relate to her in ways different from the ways our forebears related to her. Given our history and tradition, it would be surprising if we did not.
I hope in subsequent articles to discuss some of these new images of Mary, for they are ways of relating to her which many Christians are more comfortable with today.
Patrick Bearsley, a member of the Society of Mary, held a PhD (Angelicum) and an M.Lit from Oxford. He is a former Professor of Philosophy and Rector of Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary, Greenmeadows, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand and Rector of Mount Saint Mary’s College, Auckland, New Zealand. He died in Rome 2000.